Historical Winter Pastimes

Historical Winter Pastimes

Skating, Sledding, Skiing

2/2/2024 | Angela Whitlock, CSRA

For early Americans, winters were incredibly brutal. It was not until the 1700s that winter recreational activities gained popularity. The original versions of skiing, sledding, and skating within colonized America were created for traveling through ice and snow. However, each method of travel is much older than that.  


Ice skating is historically popular within southern Finland since more than 4,000 years ago and was also practiced in China during the Song dynasty, as a means for travel. Sledding dates back to Ancient Egypt. It is thought that Ancient Egyptians used sleds on sand and ramps extensively for constructing pyramids and other structures. The oldest known set of skis can be traced back a peat bog near Lake Sindor in Russia, dating back to around 6300 B.C.   


During the 18th century, innovations in skiing and ice skating led to increased interest in these activities as common winter pastimes. One of these innovations is cambered skis, which arch toward the center for more even distribution of the skier’s weight. The material used to create ice skates also changed during this time. Originally, ice skates were typically made of sharpened animal bones that would connect somehow to a shoe or clog. The 18th century brought a switch from these materials to sharpened metal blades, which were affixed to wooden platforms that could be strapped to any type of shoe. Similarly, sleds improved in shape, standard, and material.  



The first organized speed skating competition was held in England in 1763, and the first instructional book about ice skating was published in 1772. Early attempts at the construction of artificial ice rings date back to 1841-1844. Referred to as “rink mania,” it was at this point that ice skating boomed in popularity. By 1866, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper declared that ice skating was the “National Winter Exercise” of the United States.  


The Civil War was fought during this time of ice skating popularity. During the winter months when soldiers were in camp, they would often ice skate for enjoyment and to pass the time. Recovered ice skates have even recently been discovered at a former camp location in Mississippi, along with buttons and bullets.  


Ice skating’s popularity grew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due to a long string of cold winters in the Northern Hemisphere. Its popularity could also be attributed to the fact that it was one of the only sporting activities that involved both men and women, as well as people from various backgrounds.  


Locally, the University of Illinois’ indoor ice rink was built in 1931 and is known for its non-standard sized ice sheet, at approximately 197 x 115 feet (as opposed to standard regulation sizes of either 200 x 85 feet for hockey or 200 x 100 feet for figure skating). Today, it remains at this size and is one of a few remaining rinks capable of hosting Junior, National, and International level short track speed skating meets in the entire United States. In fact, the first World Short Track Speed Skating Championships were held at this rink in 1976.  


Today, winter survival skills are not as necessary, as modern conveniences have afforded us modern forms of shelter and comfort throughout the colder months. There is also just not enough snow and ice right now to engage in these activities outdoors.   


While we may not be able to do some of these activities in the same way today, there are plenty of local options available for engaging in all these activities within indoor arenas and rinks. The University of Illinois indoor ice rink offers public skating on almost every day of the week. In addition, there are several outdoor rinks nearby for those wanting to make a day out of the activity. Bloomington even offers indoor skiing and snowboarding! 


For more information on where to experience these activities, check out the following links below:  







Sources for this article from: WashingtonPost.com, Battlefields.org, History1700s.com, NorthernToboggan.com, VictorianVoices.net, SamsonHistorica.com, Wikipedia 

Image credit: Curier & Ives lithograph, found on Google Arts & Culture